Category Archives: Czech Republic 2011

Waiter, there’s a spider in my wine!

The most interesting Caprese Salad ever seen, now where the music and someone want to turn the lights down?

The search for the perfect restaurant is not a quest of ours, but dining out for 48 consecutive days and it’s easy to become a bit critical.  The lighting is either too bright, or too dark.  Ambient music is non-existent, or ear shattering top 40 blasting from a distracting 42inch LCD in the corner.  The choice of colours for tablecloths is either pink or yellow.  It seems there should be some guidelines for running a successful restaurant.

Of course success is based on sales, or more importantly the bottom line.  Replacing warm incandescent lighting with the more expensive, yet efficient, fluorescents does save a few dollars at the end of the year…but cast the room with this ghoulish glow killing any chance at romance.  Any lady that has prettied herself up for the evening in less than perfect light conditions may soon find herself in challenging conditions not previously anticipated.  Maybe Tripadvisor could add ‘lighting’ to their list of recommended ratings for eating establishments.

Music has always been a crap shoot while we have been on the go.  In one place we were the only patrons, at which point the staff quickly adjusted the tunes from their favorites to something more classic…making me imagine what a hotel elevator must have sounded like 50 years ago.  In other instances, lounge versions of classics such as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘True’ fill the air for the mix of clientele.  As for that above mentioned top 40 blaring from a TV set, we’ll call that an extreme case of distraction.  We have been without the distraction of regular television for almost 7 weeks now, so a Lady Gaga video following classic Bryan Adams can be a bit off-putting.

The location of the toilet can also be interesting.  It’s always at the back or under the restaurant, but these ancient sewer systems seem to have a mind of their own with the occasional ‘burp’ that will float through the restaurant.  Nothing like a little old world sewer stink to quash that appetite in a heartbeat.  Maybe a quick sniff of that nearby cappuccino would help matters…and have that ball of half digested pizza head back down my esophagus into my belly for further processing.

Another massacre via fork and knife. Get me a spoon to scrape up the toppings per favore!

I know every establishment can’t have the perfect dining experience.  Vancouver seems to just have the correct amount of ‘right’ though.  Knock a Cactus Club or Earls for their increasing prices, overly attentive staff, or kitschy atmosphere.  They do have a lot of good things going on though, and to take an organized business like that and put it pretty much anywhere in the world and a restauranteur could demand 5 star prices.

We’re not 5 star folk though, which means when we order the half litre of house white…we should expect the small dead spider to be slowly floating to the bottom of the carafe.  The bread should also be flavourless, and vaguely resemble a kitchen sponge for flavour, texture, and that crust that would easily scrape that burnt on chicken cacciatore from the bottom of a pot.  And really, we should expect our pizza to show up uncut.  Just give me a knife and fork to tear it apart into chunks I can roll onto a fork.

At the end of the night, it really is all about the company we keep, correct?

The Size of Your Suitcase

That's 100 steps, now only 80 more to the top!

I was warned before we departed that we are likely taking too much.  Well, with everything packed up again it means we’re about to endure the ear hammering rattle of these Chinese-made roller wheels across cobbles.  Only light and durable luggage from now on.  Big wheels and handles are good.  A colour that says, “Hey…look at me!  I am comfortable with my powder blue case and will know if you grab it by ‘mistake’!”  Has anyone looked into Japanese patents for a ‘hover’ option on a suitcase?

As for what really belongs in that suitcase…there isn’t a whole lot that you really need to get by.  if in a pinch, go out and buy it.  Sure you might be saving a few bucks by buying large quantities at home, but you then have to pack this weight around.  If you think you might need it, in all likelihood you really don’t.

For the men, all that seems to be required are the items below…unless you’re fancy and much more self conscious than the average male.

#1. Two pair of jeans, so that you have one pair to wear while the other is washing/drying

#2. Many t-shirts, in muted colours so that they go with anything.  The muted colours also won’t stand out in your pictures as well when reviewing them in a months time only to find out in every other pic you are wearing the same red t-shirt.  Let the locals be the flashy ones.

#3. Add a couple collared shirts for those times when you might be going out to attempt to impress.  For example, that pub crawl you signed up right behind those cute French gals might take more than you buying a drink for them and a clean hoodie.  Make them wrinkle free shirts if possible to, unless you’re aiming for that rumpled homeless look.

Not pictured...two more pieces of hand luggage carted by your friendly blogging mule

#4. The hoodie, we purchased these in Vienna to deal with the lack of heat in our apartment.  A hoodie has proved to be invaluable as a light jacket, casual wear, sleeping gear, jacket liner…and makes you look badass when paired with a scarf.

#5. A Scarf, multipurpose item as it can be used to filter smoke from the air…or mustard gas if in a real pinch.  A very good neck warmer, shawl for the ladies, and it’s stylish enough to maybe blend in a little.

#6. Lots of socks and undies. Essential under any condition and requires no explanation.

#7. Garbage bag, heavy duty…not the cheap thin plastic ones.  Plastic bags serve well as dirty clothes storage, and may be repurposed as a poncho if you didn’t bring an umbrella.

#8. Umbrella, small, nondescript, and keeps the rain off.  That garbage bag poncho raises the eyebrows of museum security when you start rummaging around under the crinkling bag checking your pockets for admission coinage.

#9. Basic toiletries, in the appropriate sizes.  Anything large is always a problem in that you don’t know if it will explode in your checked bags (I of course mean, leak and not the actual reason for checking liquids).  These items are also damn heavy to lug around when for the most part they can be purchased on arrival.  If they aren’t available, it might be time to become a little less precious.

#10. Computer, to hook up to wifi pretty much anywhere.  An iPad sounds great as it has great battery life, but the issues related to connecting in many places, plus the lack of flash and navigation of many foreign transportation sites can be limiting.  Great as a surfing device at home, but not a machine to work from.

#11. Swim shorts, of a muted colour, to make it look like you might actually be wearing real shorts in the event you can’t for some reason wear either pair of pants.  Something fast drying though, not your super thick cargo shorts.  If you insist on skinny dipping only, you won’t be doing the rest of us any favours.

#12. Medium weight coat…something to take the chill off during cold days and that you can pair the hoodie with for extra warmth.  No parka required unless you have the room in your luggage and the down filled garment will be essential to survival.  Additional warmth can be achieved through casual strolls into stores and striking up conversation with the shop owner.  Lamp stores are especially good for this, unless the only retailed fixtures are loaded with LED or fluorescent bulbs

As for the ladies, you may also want to consider a hard case for toiletries, prevent squishing of product, easier to sort and stash your beauty essentials.

A Series of Moments

How am I ever supposed to build one of these for her?

The realization of where you are at a particular moment can be a bit of a shock. To really take it all in and describe the minute details effectively to someone, usually results in the “you just had to be there” response. This isn’t a joke though, and it is those moments strung together, that life and traveling should really be all about. It’s where the stories come from. Take a step back once in a while and really recognize where you are, or more importantly, how you got there.

I reflect on one day I had in Thailand some 13 years ago now. I was awoken by wind shaking by beach-staked tent and a bright light which I figured must be the sun, but was only a full moon setting on the horizon just before daybreak. I couldn’t sleep anymore, so rather than sit there alone in my tent I went for a walk across the small island of Ko Lipe…with nothing but my boxers with me. Feeling my way down moonlit paths I came across huts with women mending fishing nets next to firelight and men hauling boats into the water as the sun warmed the sky from pink to burnt orange. Taking a moment or two to soak it all in, I watched the sun rise…then headed around the rocky coastline back to camp. When back at camp, I had made a hasty decision to hop on a ferry boat to take me back to the mainland, but mistakenly grabbed the wrong vessel as this one had no French tourists on it. My ferry was a private rental, which served food, and was catering to a group of Thai government officials for a staff outing. No, they didn’t kick me off the boat. They fed me, took pictures of me with their daughters, took me snorkelling…and all the way back to the mainland for no charge. Ok, maybe that was more than just a moment, and from over a decade ago when I was much younger and funded on student loans.

This ain't bad for an evening stroll

A better example might be after the short train ride from Salzburg to Vienna, where we hopped in a cab to expedite our arrival at the apartment we had booked. This cab didn’t appear to be standard issue, and likely served as a personal vehicle for the aged Russian driver. Possibly even his home during off hours. I would have asked for more details, but he spoke little to no english and Lady Gaga blasting on the radio was not helping matters. Might I also add the challenge of navigating the narrow one-way streets full of tourists crossing the roads at will, and being in our first ever horse and buggy traffic jam. Sum it all up, with a sunny afternoon and the backdrop of Austrian military helicopters being set up in the Heldenplatz. How did I get here, and how many more air fresheners would be required to make the air in this vehicle breathable?

Maybe something simpler, such as our Halloween evening where Melanie and I slow danced to some French-Canadian pop tune being played by our nightly lounge act. The lights were low, and four other couples had joined in just for the hell of it. Mix in some karaoke, including a duo of Melanie and myself, and we had our not so typical Halloween.

And where are we now? Curiously perched on the hillside of some little Italian vacation rental, nestled amongst lemon and olive trees with an amazing view of the nearby cliff drops and sunset through smokey skies. Watch the storms on the horizon, and moon rise over the mountaintops. Days now filled with blog writing and picture taking. All it took was quitting of Melanie’s job and for me to arrange a hiatus of sorts.

Now how could we possibly do this on a regular basis?  We’re not done yet, so maybe a few more weeks to try and figure that one out.

The Kids Are Still Alright

9 euro for 5 meatballs? Better be good!

How the time seems to just keep on slippin’, slippin’ into the future.  Maybe Melanie can break into that for her next karaoke breakout.  Being as we have now been on the road for now 40 days, and 40 nights…40 is just a number and in reality it’s almost a full 6 weeks.  With that milestone ’40’ is also celebration of my 40+ posts with some real content, although celebration is a bit of an overstatement in that this is more now of a personal goal than something truly culture changing.  Those of you dedicated readers, all 10-15 of you, I appreciate the reading because other than the few of you that read this…the only audience I can really write for is Melanie.  Call it sappy, but she still likes what I write.  That’s what she tells me anyways.  Not every post can be equally engaging, and maybe after whipping up 100 posts one of them might actually be captivating, similar to a million monkeys typing for 10 years creating a masterpiece.  Am I a monkey?

It’s also 40 days of eating foods our bodies haven’t adjusted to, after all…how many days in a row can you eat pizza, caprese salads or spaghetti pomadoro?  It’s 40 days of managing bathroom breaks, since you never really know where the next one might be.  Do you have sufficient change of the correct denomination to insert into the door? Are the cleanliness levels are sufficient to quell that urge?  How long is that line, and is this a co-ed water closet…really?  We really are spoiled back home.  For a dose of reality, there must be a gas station restroom along an Albertan stretch of the TransCanada to offer up some relative similarity for you readers to identify with.  I know, it’s a huge step up from some of the facilities in India or China, but I am not complaining…just noting it.

Taken one day ago... No fake smiles here

In addition…40 days of observing other turistas and exactly what not to do.  I have mentioned before our attempts to blend with the locals, and our efforts seem to be completely lost on anyone native to the area.  We did well in France, Germany and Austria, but not so well here.  I am guessing it’s the one syllable conversations on our end which definitely show we’re a little lacking in Italian lingual prowess.  Maybe it’s the distinct lack of color in our cheeks from a short Vancouver summer.  The few we are able to convince we’re local, are those with the slow aimless dawdle down the streets with huge digital SLR’s swinging from their necks.  This is likely whom those ‘Beware of Pickpockets’ signs are directed towards, however it doesn’t hurt to be vigilant with our own personal items.

I can’t say I have ever spent close to 1000+ continuous hours with any specific individual and we are quickly approaching just that.  Certainly there has to be times where a little personal space is required without losing your mind, and currently that personal space consists of a 5 minute shower or short excursions to find gelato while the other waits and watches the luggage at the bus or train station.  If anyone is wondering, we’re doing just fine and not at each others throats…as long as there are pee breaks and moments to keep the blood sugar up.

I’ll keep the writing up, even though many could care less.  Considering neither of us are now pulling a paycheque, maybe traffic to this site can slowly build to the point where clicked ads can support us (if I ever find the widget to add on).  This writing gives me something cathartic to do in the morning while Melanie’s getting ready to face the day, and an excuse for me to suck back a couple instant coffees when no authentic caffeine source is available.  Maybe I can catch a whiff of a neighbour smoking to give me that now needed nicotine fix.  Is it really possible to become addicted to second-hand smoke?

Czech food is tasty!! Pork Knee?

After our lackluster adventures in German and Austrian cuisine, we have finally found some flavour.  That flavour isn’t in the form of sausages or dollops of mustard either.  We have finally discovered tasty, tasty food.

To eat or not to eat....I say EAT!!

Granted there are heaps of garlic and onion cooked into everything that do add to the flavour.  Unlike my typical lunchtime adventures though that would have Melanie questioning just what I may have ingested over the course of a day to have such rotten breath…she too must partake in the tasty food making us both intolerable to the rest of the non-allium (onion genus) consuming public.  Who cares?

Every foray into a restaurant doorway is to qualify the air quality to check to acceptably low levels of tobacco smoke in the air.  Upon finding a clean, relatively smoke free eatery with interesting decor and prices that don’t have that tourist multiplier…we’ll settle down to try something new and hopefully delectable.  Last night was by far the best, and this morning my belly is still full.  The only pic we have is of the salad, and that is because we just couldn’t wait to dive into the chicken roulade or broad noodle pasta.  And after realizing the semolina pudding we ordered for dessert was really just a bowl of cream o’ wheat…additional pics weren’t really required.

The presentation may not be much...but the food is oh so very tasty...

So that was last night.  Over the last few days the meals may not have looked all that appetizing, but wow…tastebud rollercoaster.  I haven’t been a typical sauerkraut fan.  Sure I might try it occasionally on a hotdog at a hockey game just to reaquaint myself with it’s vinegary crunch, but now I must say the Czech sauerkraut is an absolute win for me.  Heap it onto everything!  I would eat it for breakfast.  An essential condiment for maybe even pizza…OK, maybe not pizza…but you get the drift.  I actually checked out a recipe for Czech sauerkraut just to not only recommend it…but maybe I’ll even try whipping a little of this up at home.

The street food looks great as well, and today will be the day for testing the pork on a spit…slowly cooked over a mobile wood-fueled campfire.  Research suggests that this is ‘Old Prague Ham’ and based on the number of patrons clustered around free-standing tables with hunks of this meat on buns and beer or mulled wine in hand…it is definitely worth attempting.

If the translation isn't sufficient, these Ikea-inspired instructions are available to assemble your meal

Yesterday we tried the crepe booth right next to this Prague ham setup.  The surly service, overpriced, and unappetizing product explained the lack of business.  They were more people clustered around the fried cheese sandwich booth, and we know it’s not for a lack of acceptance of French cuisine due to the number of quiche-serving bakeries nearby.

Finally, there is pork-knee.  Maybe with a little coaching from one of my fried chicken-foot loving friends I could get a minor education in both what to expect from ordering a meal centered around the leg joint of one of my childhood pets, but I just can’t quite go there on my own.  I’ll remember this pic though as a signal of what to look for during that next Prague visit.

How to: Vacation Apartment Rentals

Sometimes a little surprising what you get

So you’re thinking of renting an apartment, townhouse, villa, or hut on the beach instead of doing the usual hotel thing for your next vacation.  The question is where to start and how to do it.  I won’t say we’re experts by any means.  We have ventured out of the comfort zone that Expedia, Travelocity or Priceline might offer though.  An apartment is a great way to stay in a place that is out of the typical hotel district, and maybe something a little more realistic of how the locals might live.  We have found fewer vagrants huddled in the streets, locals bars full of life, chatty grocers, and the best bakeries making the experience much more unique and memorable.

We have done craigslist.  Sure there is always the possibility of being scammed, but realize that for the most part people are good.  If you live in constant fear that when you arrive the accommodation you thought you arranged isn’t actually there… you can always resort to a hotel as a back up plan.

In Montreal, we rented a great little flat for about 40% of a typical hotel.  The guy that lived there was a student from UVic that needed a few extra bucks.  He simply packed a few things and moved to his brother’s apartment a few doors away.  It was interesting, drawers were full of clothes, condiments were still in the fridge, change was still in a jar by the bed.  It was as if this guy completely trusted a total stranger to stay in his place for three nights.  It was a great little walkup brownstone-type building in a neighbourhood off a park with fresh crepes and lattes only 20 steps from the front door.  You definitely don’t get that in the downtown, commercial districts.

Craigslist also worked out well in NYC, where a lady who splits her time between London and NYC decided some time ago to have her father rent out the place while she was gone.  The proceeds from the apartment rental went towards the charity her father managed from the first floor of the building.  Now, these types of reservations may be a little hit and miss.  Pics of places can be a little misleading, sometimes in a good way…sometimes in a bad way.  There are never any reviews either, and considering anybody could do it…I guess whoever has keys to our place while we’re away may also be renting it out while we’re away for beer money.  Let’s hope that’s not the case as I hate scrubbing other people’s filth.

Imagine waking up to this each day?

We were in Bermuda back in May, and for that stay we found a place through vrbo.com.  One week in a place with few hotel options made a vacation rental near essential.  Of the few places noted, we decided to splurge a little and go for a three unit vacation villa rental where the owner resided on the top floor.  Reviews were great and the owner was responsive and cooperative… but as a buyer there always has to be a little hesitation.  Apparently that hesitation was not required as a driver was there to pick us up from the airport, even with a delayed flight, and everything was included in the rental…all the way down to a loaf of bread, jam and some milk to get us started.  Complimentary kayaks down at his little dock as well… sorry, I don’t seem to have any pics of the inside of this place…but what does that matter when you have a view like this.

Quaint, balcony and great views...but those nighttime kitchen bugs were offputting

For this trip, we have been using vrbo.com and homeaway.com.  Both sites have a wide variety of accommodations and do some vetting of the entrepreneurs advertising their places (of course that vetting may be just extraction of an annual fee, but it’s something to qualify these people as real).  Each site also makes it easy to search out an area, check photos of places, and reviews from previous clientele.  Reviews seem to be the only real source of information from the web these days, but as with any movie I have been told that I must see, and have been greatly disappointed with…everyone has an opinion and it definitely isn’t yours.

When was the last time you mentioned to anyone the hotel you stayed at?  How eager the concierge was? What was the star rating was on the hotel?  For the most part, people don’t really care about those stories, and if they do…it’s a short conversation.  I could say that with our Paris apartment, it was all an adventure.  Emailing a deposit to the guy, coordinating collection of the key (secretly duct taped to the underside of the doormat).  Discovering no elevator on arrival, and 111 steps needed to be ascended with two overstuffed suitcases. Finally, meeting the owner for a final cash payment.  It turns out the guy is just a prof at a local university who has written some whitepapers on coding and how to write apps for the iPhone.  Decorating style and cleanliness were not big strong points.

So new and clean...a welcome sight for a week

Munich required standing in the rain for 20 minutes waiting for the guy to arrive, let us into the building and do the key exchange.  Once again, cash in hand to complete the transaction…but we had a stunning apartment all renovated in the last month.  So new the Ikea barcodes were still stck to the bottoms of the dishes.  Not all was simple though with the lack of a shower door soaking the entire bathroom every time you rinsed off the grime from a day wandering around town.  No bio on the guy, but he was there promptly to deliver any requested items, and was also the cleaning staff when we left the apartment on the final day.  A nice experience.

Vienna was arranged relatively last minute, with only a few days notice.  Another cash transaction this time with no deposit required to even secure the room.  Local hotels in the same area were going for 200+ euro/night and we worked out an 80/night deal.  Upon arrival, we had a brand new european bathroom on the third floor of an amazingly located building, and a storage bed with a fabric dating back at least three decades.  The room was topped off with a chandelier over the bed!  When was the last time you woke up thinking you were about to be served for dinner?

Bigger than our place at home! Clean! Awesome!

Finally, Prague.  A few apartments found through homeaway.com, which were managed by Prague City Apartments.  I haven’t specifically listed the individual vendors above, but feel I must put together a specific shout-out for these guys.  Unlike the typical property managers, these guys were always very quick to respond, had updated calendars, and offered several other services such as train or airport transfers for local rates.  Prices that were a fraction of hotels, in locations you couldn’t beat.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, as everything seemed too good to be true.  A price only 40% of nearby hotels.  Excellent reviews from previous customers.  A location only 5 minutes walk from the Old Town Square.  All I can say is the company really knows what they’re doing and customer service is number one here.  Something we haven’t seen in previous rentals is a maid service…here we have our towels also changed daily.  Unprecedented!  Even the dishes from breakfast are cleaned on a daily basis.

So, this article may be a little long, but is intended to share a little of our varied experience while renting.  If you’re a newbie and scared to try it…maybe this will be that push you need.  Give it a shot and you may be nicely surprised.

Poop on the sidewalk and bubbles in the park

This sidewalk is clear!

Maybe I am just a little conservative, but the polite citizens of Vancouver are certain to make sure any droppings their pets may leave are usually scooped up…and definitely not on the sidewalk.  Over the last 15 years in Vancouver of strolling those streets, I could probably count the total number of times seeing poop smeared into the sidewalk on just one hand.

These beautiful, hand assembled cobbled streets though seem to be a minefield at times.  You could be walking down the street focussed on the architecture and statues only to suddenly find yourself slipping on the greasy excretion of a purse mutt.  We have been lucky thus far, and by writing this I am sure my luck has run out.  Fingers do continue to be crossed though that we can make it a few more days ‘feces-free’.

Reminds me of a Batman movie. The spotlights are sure to reveal him.

The cobbles and paving stones are really quite impressive.  To most, these would just be a sidewalk…something hard to shed the rain from the storefronts to minimize the amount of mud accumulation on 6 inch leopard print knee high boots.  Each stretch of sidewalk has a slightly different pattern, stones cut to fit around corners, drainpipes, those sloped curbs for stroller and wheelchair access.  These must be specialists they bring in just to clean up the job after digging up the sidewalk.  Artistry rarely noticed with timeworn street pebbles.  What I really am saying is how to I smuggle a few of these out of the country in my luggage without tipping the scales at check-in?  In addition, who punishes the kid who keeps throwing these prized cubes of marble over the railing into the Vltava?

So my fascination has been with the cobbles, only really noticed out of self-preservation of poo-free footwear.  Melanie’s has been with the pretty rooftops.  I guess time and the influence of various cultures will do just that to a city.  Turquoise copper patina, rust red, black oxide, ceramic tiles…no tar and gravel, or flat roofs here.

It's the simple things in life...I should be that kid!

Our daily wanderings also happened upon a solar powered bubble machine.  An artist/sculptor has just recently completed the installation, the Bubble Stroj, at Karlovo Namesti (for us english speakers, Charles Park) as part of a revitalization project for the park.  No idea what may have happened in this park in years past, but how can you ever go wrong with the addition of bubbles.

Of course now Melanie’s wish list for me to complete now includes building some cannon defended castle or fort, with lots of towers and stone spiral staircases.  A grandiose bubble machine, also solar powered, needs to be integrated into the complex to continually fill the bronze-statued compound with soapy spheres on sunny days.  Oh, yeah I forgot the clock…astronomical of course, she wouldn’t have it any other way.  Maybe I’ll be able to hide a cotton candy machine in the walls somewhere too.